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Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen

by David Sax

Save the Deli, by Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based journalist David Sax, should come with a warning: may induce cravings for smoked-meat sandwiches, sour pickles, and chewy rye. Sax’s passion for Jewish food emanates from the pages of Save the Deli, just as the flavour of salt, garlic, and secret spices exude from the delicacies he describes. Sax is a man on a mission. Jewish delis are in decline, threatened with extinction. His battle cry: if the delis vanish, we lose a vital part of Jewish identity.

Sax’s passion for deli food that is to die for (literally) is the legacy of his grandfather. “Poppa” Sam died two years before Sax’s birth “by way of a smoked meat sandwich” with extra speck (seasoned slices of pickled fat), which he enjoyed at Schwartz’s deli in Montreal – immediately after a hospital stay for angina. According to Sax, Poppa Sam “died as he lived – in love with Jewish delicatessen.” That passion is Sax’s birthright.

Save the Deli is a book for readers with an appetite. The reader accompanies Sax as he taste-tests his way through Jewish delis in Montreal and Toronto, coast-to-coast in the U.S., as well as in London, Paris, and Krakow. He takes readers behind the counter to learn the secrets of making the perfect pastrami sandwich (which is not as easy as it looks). Archival photographs of legendary delis add poignancy, and two indexes, a glossary of Yiddish food terms, and a listing of delis Sax visited for research will be useful for readers of any background.

Sax’s prose sports a lively, haymishe (warm, homey) style, marred only by occasional confused comparisons: “Like snowflakes … no two pastramis are exactly alike.”  Snowflakes and pastrami? Just say nu.

Nonetheless, Save the Deli reminds us that eating that perfect pastrami on rye is, for many Jews, tantamount to internalizing and preserving a piece of their history.  As Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl describes a classic deli sandwich in the book, “it’s fat and salt and sweet…. How could you not like it?”  The same is true of this meaty book.